Featured in the upcoming Zemanek-Münster auction on 22 March, this spectacular Mongo drum (lot 579) is one of my personal highlights from the sale. 121 cm high, the upper and lower part are carved in steps, a typical feature of these drums. The interplay between the black and white planes enforces the geometric character of this drum substantially. It was published in Belgium collects African art (p. 290), while being in the Damian Reeners collection. I only know a handful other drums like this. This example is an excellent condition for its age.
Everybody knows the classic icons and masterpieces of African art by now; which makes an encounter with an object that doesn’t belong to this canon just yet always very captivating. The moment I saw the above object for the first time a couple of years ago, I could not take my eyes of it. It doesn’t matter how much (or less) one knows about the art of the Fon, the strength that radiates from this piece is mesmerizing. The two raised naturalistic hands parallel to the shaft of the miniature recade, with its top raising above the scene, is a stroke of genius. Measuring 18,5 cm, this 19th century brass element once decorated an asen, a Fon altar dedicated to the ancestors. It was placed on a circular metal tray raised on a pick (now lost). The form of the scepter seen between the two hands refers to the hammer and anvil which symbolize King Guezo (1818-1858). This piece comes from King Glele’s descendants. The brass was probably manufactured by the Hountondji family of blacksmiths who worked exclusively for the royal court of Abomey. This object was featured in Serge Schoffel’s Fon exhibition during the last Brafa in Brussels (info); it came from the private collection of Ann De Pauw and Luc Huysveld (Amma Tribal Art, Antwerp) and is also featured in the exhibition’s catalogue.
A nice slide show, compiled by Marco Barina and clearly inspired by Rubin’s magnus opus Primitivism, showcasing the metamorphoses of the human face and body from the most varied cultures through art history. View it here.
This long, long journey back in time begins with Lucy, the first hominid whose remains are preserved at the National Museum in Addis Ababa. Our journey from the remotest of times to the present day begins from this “primary” image. Through sudden leaps that juxtapose distant epochs and civilizations, the forms in which human beings depict themselves reveal immediate yet “mysterious” resonances…
An error often made in the trade concerns the attribution of the above type of figures. They are often mistakenly listed as Montol, or even Chamba. In fact, they originate from the Angas (Ngas), the largest ethnic group on the Jos Plateau and neigbours of the Montol. They are situated in the Eastern escarpment of the Jos-Highland Plateau. It’s an easily recognizable style, clearly distinguishable from the more chunky Montol iconography. It was Barry Hecht, a renowned collector of Nigerian art, who informed me about this general misconception. Martial Bronsin confirmed this attribution to a private collector from Brussels. Most likely these figures were used in a context similar to the Komtin cult from the Montol. In Central Nigeria Unmasked, a book discussing Middle Benue sculpture, not a single reference to the Angas can be found. For now, I haven’t been able to find any relevant literature. Any further information about this type of sculpture is thus very welcome.
An object you don’t often come across at auction, a talking drum from the Yoruba. The above example was acquired in the palace of the Oba of Oyo in the early 1960s and will be sold by Dorotheum next month; more info here.
In case you were wondering how they sound… (trust me, you’ll be amazed by the sound they can produce)
I just discovered an interesting article on the process of making Putchu Guinadji talisman by the Kotoko people in Cameroon and Chad. Apparently the process of making such talisman had not been recorded up to now.
After putting together a fine collection of “Putchu Guinadji”, miniature horsemen or warriors made of bronze, silver, copper, or brass, for my museum, I became curious about these talismans that were supposedly used by mad people among the Kotoko people in Cameroon and Chad, near the Lake Chad basin, along the Logone and Chan rivers.
There is as good as no literature on the Putchu Guinadji or on their makers, the Kotoko people. Pierluigi Peroni, a collector in Italy, has published two beautiful art books on his outstanding collection but has no description of how these horsemen were activated or used. My curiosity was awakened. No photos exist of these pieces being used, and no texts explain their spiritual activation or how they are used. On December 7,2012 I flew to Cameroon with the goal of unraveling the secret of the Putchu Guinadji.
Continue reading here.
As you may have noticed the next Lempertz sale in Brussels (info) features multiple figures carved by Thomas Ona (see below). Unfortunately they forgot to include a biography, so let me do that in their place here. From an article on Kunstpedia, written by David Zemanek, we learn:
When Uli Beier arrived in Nigeria there was more than just a dying of the Nigerian culture. Artists were faced with fewer commissions from the shrines and from private people for religious objects. So, many of them began to produce for the colonial tourism or they worked for the churches. A famous example of a great carver was Thomas Ona Odulate of Ijebu Ode, who worked from the turn of the century into the the late fifties. He first worked at Ijebu Ode, later in Lagos, where he was well known for his gently satirical carvings of colonial administrators, lawyers, missionaries made as souvenirs for the English.
Two years after the publication of this article, William Ayodele Odulate (one of the children of Thomas Ona) made a very interesting comment with some corrections and additions on the Kunstpedia website.
Thomas Onajeje Odulate was my father. I am standing right beside him. Picture taken at Tokunbo Street, Lagos. I am the only surviving child of his five children. He worked in Ikorodu (not Ijebu-Ode) and Lagos. He belonged to the ruling Mosene family of Ikorodu, Lagos State. He died in November 1952 and is buried in front of the Mosene compound, Ikorodu.
We learn more here on the website of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology:
After moving to Lagos, Ona produced great quantities of novel woodcarvings depicting both colonials and Yoruba. Among the former were administrators, soldiers, lawyers, doctors, butchers, missionaries, polo players, married couples, even Queen Victoria. The Yoruba included both traditional roles and new, colonial occupations: mothers and children, masked dancers, kings and messengers, hunters, policemen, and postmen. Almost all were sold to the British; while some were commissioned, most were made in advance and then marketed.
While Ona’s figures are pioneering in subject matter, they are traditional in style. They follow usual Yoruba proportions, with a large head equal in size to the torso and legs. Ona used the traditional Yoruba carving tools of adze and knife. He painted the figures in red and black ink, white shoe polish, leaving the natural tan of the wood. However, unlike traditional Yoruba sculpture, which is usually carved out of single piece of wood, many of Ona’s carvings have separate parts, such as hats, guns, books, mallets, or umbrellas. And like most tourist arts, Ona’s sculpture often exists in multiple, similar versions. While they seem to be satirical or caricatures, and have been so identified, Ona told Bascom that his works simply showed how he viewed the world around him.
I could trace circa hundred works by his hand, making him the most prolific African sculptor of the first half of the twentieth century. For further reading:
- Nigeria: a quarterly magazine of general interest, June 1938, 14, p.138
- William Bascom, Modern African figurines: satirical or just stylistic?, Lore, 1957, 7(4), cover, pp.118-126
Last Saturday, 14 December 2013, Artcurial Lyon, auctioned the collection of the anonymous Mr. C. You can download the catalogue here. Though mostly utilitarian objects, the sale contained some interesting items. The sleeper of the sale, the above Luba antelope headrest (info), estimated € 2K-3K, sold for € 26K (without costs). An old inscription mentioned it was collected in 1914. Compare it with a similar neckrest, illustrated below, from the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin (#III.E.12755), collected in 1907 (height: 14,8 cm).
Again, this result illustrates, that no masterpieces in small auctions stay overlooked these days. Be it in Liège, Belgium; Lyon, France or a small provincial sale in the UK, the time of being the only knowledgable person at such a sale is definitely over. Secondly, since there were not many other suprises in the sale, it shows also how highly selective the market is these days. In this economy, everybody is watching his or her cash more carefully than ever and only the safe bets still generate interest.
An auction find. This wonderful composition of 110 Ovambo clasp-buttons from Namibia will be sold in Paris on 6 December (more info here). Tom Phillips wrote about these ornaments in Africa – the Art of a Continent (London, 2004: pp. 228-229):
Many Ovambo ivory clasp-buttons have recently appeared on the European and American markets, where they have been without exception shown as individual objects rather than in any social context. They are a feature of women’s prestige ceremonial dress in the area of Namibia on the Angolan border and among the Kwanyama in Angola itself. They are perforated at the back in the manner of a toggle to admit leather thongs which bind them to belts or strands of beads. Early examples are found in conjunction with shell ornaments. In a Windhoek collection I have seen a complete harness of leather feathering about 25 omakipa. The vocabulary of form is wide-ranging from narrow boat shapes through square pyramid to the more usual domed form sometimes culminating in a raised nipple in evident imitation of a breast. The are usually made of elephant ivory softened by burial before working into the desired shape. Most are etched with conventional patterns of cross-hatching, though early examples can show more invention and less rigid formats. The etched marks are heightened by rubbing in various plant juices including one of a virulent crimson (sometimes almost purple). Some smaller omakipa are made from rhinoceros ivory while more recently bone has been used and even wood. They are commissioned as gifts to the future bride by the groom. After marriage he will continue to add to his wife’s collection which she wears on feast days to reflect his wealth. A full regalia would include loose straps also bearing these ivory clasps that swing freely in the dance. Ironically a number of omakipa have recently found their way back to the world of female finery, made up as very expensive belts by a fashionable designer.
They are of course very decorative. Illustrated above, another example of a recontextualisation of a large group of omakipa.
Browsing through the catalogue of the next Sotheby’s Paris sale, it’s evident how the estimates are again much steeper than with their New York colleagues. A good example are the two Luluwa figures illustrated above. Though they have a different patina, they are clearly from the same workshop and most likely even by the same hand. Note that the figure on the left was photographed from below, which gives a slightly different perspective (cf. the mouth). Both figures have large C-shaped eyes, diamond shaped eyes and only schematically rendered fingers. The overall composition is pratically identical. Besides the patination, the biggest difference is the scarification pattern on the forehead. Closer examination reveals other small differences. Personally, I am convinced they are by the same hand. Strangely enough, Sotheby’s doesn’t make any reference to the figure they sold six months ago in New York. Instead, we learn its style connects it with the Bakwa Ndoolo subgroup and that it is similar to a female figure from the Robert Reisdorff Collection, which was published by Olbrechts’ Plastiek van Kongo in 1946 (see below). This last figure does have much in common, like the C-shaped ears and diamond shaped eyes. Nevertheless its hands are much more realistically carved and the overall carving is much more crisp. Together with the body scarifications (absent in both Sotheby’s figures), I would dare to speculate the Reisdorff figure is an earlier generation of this style. So far the art history.
Now, concerning the estimates. The figure on the right was sold in New York last May for € 21K (est. € 9K-14K) (info)*. The one on the left, on the other hand, will be sold in Paris on 11 December, and has an estimate of € 60K-90K (info). A six-fold increase ! Both figure never were published nor exhibited and the provenances are not so very different in ‘value’ (Pierre Dartevelle for the Paris figure and Paul Timmermans for New York) – though Timmermans was a Luluwa expert and published on the subject.
(* previously sold at Sotheby’s, New York, 8 May 1989. Lot 74. Sold for $ 13K)
I have labeled this atelier “The Luluwa workshop of the diamond shaped eyes”, though these typical eyes are possibly more a characteristic of a regional style. During Bruneaf 2011, Kellim Brown presented a group of six figures in this same style by a carver which he identified as Bakwa Ndolo (scroll down here for pictures). I still have to read his book on the subject (Southern Kasai Hands, Brussels 2011). The ears of the figures of this very productive artist are smaller than the artist under discussion here and the apron is clearly differently conceived. To finish, two more figures from the Luluwa master of the diamond shaped eyes.